Over a decade ago on August 9, 2012, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson made an announcement that was unprecedented for that company. The firm decided to pull Christian Nationalist David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson from publication. The publisher’s representatives said they lost confidence in the book’s facts.
What led to Thomas Nelson’s decision? While there were several factors, one I know the most about is my book with my friend and colleague Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right. When I learned that Barton planned to bring out a book on Thomas Jefferson that argued that Jefferson was not a strong advocate of church-state separation, I obtained a review copy of his book and set to work writing a book-length review. In the midst of writing, I invited my then Grove City College fellow professor Coulter to join me, and we completed the book about one month after Barton finished work on The Jefferson Lies in April 2012.
We are aware of several people who suggested that editors at Thomas Nelson should read our book. One in particular was philosopher Jay Richards. Currently a fellow with the Heritage Foundation, Richards had doubted Barton’s scholarship before our book came out. Once he read Getting Jefferson Right, he told me he was glad we had provided a book that documented many of the historical problems of Barton’s work in one place. Eventually, after considering the feedback from our book as well as feedback from others, Thomas Nelson discontinued publication of The Jefferson Lies.
Now, over a decade later, Barton’s book is back out in a second edition in which he claims to rebut our critique. He also appears to be more influential than ever as Christian Nationalism is on an upswing. So, in response, we have decided to release a revised version of Getting Jefferson Right.
In addition to correcting the record regarding the publication of The Jefferson Lies, we want to address the role of revisionist history in the resurgence of Christian Nationalism during the past decade. We honestly believed that the demise of The Jefferson Lies would harm the overall reputation of purveyors of revisionist history and that, in turn, Christian Nationalism as a movement might self-correct.
Clearly, we were too optimistic. We underestimated the power of tribal loyalties and related political aspirations. Even though a major Christian publisher pulled his book due to documented historical errors, Barton continues to enjoy a solid presence as an influencer among conservative evangelicals. His influence is conspicuously strong in Republican-majority state legislatures.
The belief that the United States is a nation of Christian privilege is powerfully intertwined with the religious and political identity of many evangelical Christians. Despite the consensus among professional historians that an innovation of the Constitution and the American experiment is the separation of church and state, a surprising number of Christians endorse survey items that suggest the laws of the United State should reflect the Bible.
Undergirding these beliefs are numerous false narratives about the founders and events at the founding of the nation that are taken as support for the idea that God brought the U.S. into existence in a way that makes America better or more favored than other nations. We are convinced that historical revisionism is necessary for Christian Nationalism to flourish.
Modern-day Christian Nationalist storytellers find themselves in a long line of people who seek to shape popular opinion toward the view that the U.S. is and should be a Christian nation. One of the earliest storytellers was Mason Locke Weems who, just one year after the death of George Washington, published a book with many tales of Washington’s alleged moral greatness, including the cherry tree story. Generations of children learned those lessons in school.
More recently, historian Kevin Kruse documents in his book One Nation Under God how wealthy corporate bosses in the 1930s and ’40s recruited Christian leaders to unite religious and nationalistic aims. This eventually culminated in the amalgamation of religion and politics that marked the Eisenhower years. During those years, “In God We Trust” was added to our paper money and became the national motto; “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. In light of these narratives, many Americans listen to the stories told about the founders by revisionists and, unless they do some fact-checking, have little reason to doubt them.
Many claims we examine in Getting Jefferson Right are central to those Christian nation narratives. In the face of change and loss of influence, many evangelicals desperately want to maintain a belief in the dominance of Christianity — particularly white evangelicalism — in society and political structures. While these fears and concerns may be understandable, there are multiple downsides to a failure to fully face historical facts. These psychological defenses can work against the first job of the historian, which is to get history right. We hope our work in Getting Jefferson Right brings some reality therapy to the situation.
Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D. is a retired professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. This article includes material from Getting Jefferson Right: Fact-Checking Claims About Thomas Jefferson by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter and published by Salem Grove Press. It is available at Amazon.com and at GettingJeffersonRight.com.
In his own words: Thomas Jefferson on religious freedom
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” – Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
“[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern. …” – Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted January 1786
“[The pro-establishment clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.” – Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” – Letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association, Jan. 1, 1802
“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises. … I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, its doctrines, nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and praying are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has the right to determine for itself the times for these exercises and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets, and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.” – Letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808
These quotes were compiled by the staff of Americans United’s Communications Department. To learn more about the founders’ views on church-state separation and religious freedom, visit: www.au.org/what-did-the-founding-fathers-really-say/